Did you know?A British periodical, London Protestant Mercury, featured the victory of James Figg in bare-knuckle championship in 1719 for the first time ever in the history of prizefighting. This was when the term 'boxing' was coined.
Boxing, today, is a multimillion dollar sport that has inspired and garnered millions of passionate followers throughout the world. However, the sport itself is mired with stories, controversies, contradictions and of course, personal enmities. It was officially ranked as the most difficult sport by ESPN in 2004. Possibly, the very fact that it is a brutal combat sport, wherein participants take on each other, one on one, plays an important role in creating the hype that exists around modern boxing.
Boxing is one of the oldest contact sports known to mankind. Because it essentially involves fist fighting, the practice may have existed, not as a sport, but as a form of violent encounters, even during the prehistoric times. The Greek epic Iliad, an 8th century B.C. work by Homer, illustrates how boxing was a sport that was played in the form of 'prize-fight' during funerals. This shows how ceremonially important the sport may have been in ancient Greece. Later on, though, it was included in the Olympic games and thus became a full-fledged sport rather than making ceremonial appearances. But still, boxing was in a very rudimentary form, in that there were no defined rules and regulations about any aspect of the sport. Whoever wished, could take part, and anybody could fight anyone. When one of the boxers was too tired and injured to fight any further, the other one was declared the winner.
An interesting take on boxing, as a mortal combat event, comes from ancient Rome where it was included in the gladiator contests, where the contestants fought until one of them died, or was severely injured. Some sources also tell us that in ancient Rome, where slavery was deeply rooted, boxing matches were arranged for those slaves, who sought freedom. The combat took place between two such slaves and the one who won was released from the bonds of slavery. On the contrary, the one who lost was either killed in that combat or was retained as a slave for the rest of his life.
So, in ancient times, boxing was in a very primitive stage. It was one of those competitive sports wherein contestants either lived or died, or in some cases suffered irreparable injuries. However, the sport itself fell into a state of obscurity after the downfall of the Roman Empire. It did make minor appearances in the form of bare-knuckle fighting during the Renaissance age in 16th century Europe, but did not manage to gain enough popularity, as it was then practiced predominantly by the lower classes. The upper class elites indulged in more noble forms of entertainment and regarded boxing as a savage sport.
18th century Europe saw the age of Enlightenment. This was the period when the people of Europe looked keenly into their ancient sources of knowledge and wisdom and tried to incorporate them in their daily lives. Everyone was suddenly very curious to know about their roots and the origin of things. In this quest of gaining knowledge from the sources of antiquity, the curious Europeans stumbled upon ancient references to boxing which triggered a renewed interest in the sport.
The wealthy English aristocrats began to patronize bare-knuckle fights among the boxers whom they chose. A lot of money was involved in such fights, with the victorious individual winning hefty amounts. A major part of this physical sport then involved fencing and cudgeling. England became the birthplace of what came to be known as 'prizefighting', wherein the two contestants fought on behalf of their patrons, sometimes even to settle their patrons' personal grudges. But again, these contests were not based on any kind of rules and regulations. Sometimes, the fights became so intense and vehement that they resulted in the death of one of the fighters.
In order to avoid such gruesome situations, in 1743, a set of rules were introduced for all boxing matches which were supposed to be played thenceforth. This was the first true revolution that happened in the field of boxing. These rules came to be recognized as Broughton's rules named after an English bare-knuckle champion Jack Broughton, who formalized them. Some of the basic rules that shaped conventional boxing since then, included
- The use of 'mufflers' or padded gloves,
- Prohibition to attack and grapple an opponent below the waist, and
- Disqualifying a player if he was unable to get up and fight back within a prescribed time limit of 30 seconds, after being knocked down by his opponent.
After Jack Broughton's era as a bare-knuckle champion, the interest of English aristocracy in boxing faced a decline. However, the following Anglo-French war for colonial dominance that took place during the 1780s, triggered a strong nationalist sentiment in the people of England in general. Suddenly, everybody wanted to do things that they thought were truly 'English'. As a result, owing to the development of boxing as a white-collared sport in England and the valuable contribution of their very own Jack Broughton to it, boxing also re-emerged, alongside many other things, with force and double the energy.
A lot of fights began to be arranged during this time leading to a lot of new pugilists rising to popularity. Moreover, every new kid on the block, brought with him his own style of fighting (staying within the framework of Broughton's rules) which gained more and more fame for the sport. One such name that rose to prominence was a London-based pugilist called Daniel Mendoza. He brought with him, his unique style of boxing footwork and counter punches. His fights, particularly with Richard Humphreys fetched a lot of audience as both of them would block attacks, taunt each other (both during the match and in the newspaper bytes that they gave the night before the match) and wave their bodies in a unique way for the purpose of self-defense.
Though many people thought that such kind of dance-like moves gave a crude tint to the otherwise white-collared gentleman's sport, the sport did manage to get a considerable fan following of the young and the old alike.
The popularity of boxing was thus increasing at a tremendous speed. It became the sport of the masses, a sport in which men from every race, class and creed could participate. More and more people wanted to learn the sport and be an active part of it. Owing to this, boxing took one more leap forward. Numerous boxing schools and academies sprang up all across England and, not surprisingly, most of them were soon overflowing with applications.
In 1838 came the introduction of the 'London Prize Ring Rules' which were to be revised later in 1853. The rules, however, revolved around bare-knuckle boxing only and upheld Jack Broughton's legacy for a little over a century. These rules were eventually succeeded by 'Marquess of Queensberry Rules' that set the parameters for modern-day boxing. The code of these rules was penned down in 1865 by a Welshman called John Graham Chambers, who was an all-star athlete and sportsman excelling in boxing, cycling, wrestling, rowing and billiards. Chambers was also an honored member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The 'Marquess of Queensberry Rules' were finally published in 1867. The 'Marquess of Queensberry Rules' was a set of 12 rules which called for the mandatory use of gloves during the boxing match, a standard size of the boxing ring, dividing a boxing match into different rounds of three minutes each and a count of 10 seconds for a complete and an undisputed victory. Players were prohibited from wearing boots with springs or even from hugging the opponent or wrestling with him.
The 1867 draft of the 'Marquess of Queensberry Rules' paved the way for a number of amateur competitions at popular venues throughout London. The competitors were divided into lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight in accordance to their physical characteristics which broadened the possibilities of participation. The introduction of gloves changed the entire pulse of the game. The attack and defense strategies, gradually began to change from their orthodox bare-knuckle counterparts.
The 'Marquess of Queensberry Rules' then transitioned as the foundation of boxing governance into the USA and Canada. In 1892, in New Orleans, the title for the first heavyweight champion under the Queensberry Rules was spectacularly fought between John L. Sullivan (Boston Strong Boy) and James J. Corbett ("Gentleman Jim" Corbett). The result of the match saw James J. Corbett emerge as the victor. Also, Theodore Roosevelt advocated boxing to a large extent. While he himself was trained in boxing as a young man, he also promoted it as a manly sport.
Despite the establishment of the 'Marquess of Queensberry Rules' and the soaring popularity of the sport, boxing in the late 19th century came to be outlawed in U.K. as the law was a little skeptical about the motive of this prizefighting sport that was usually held at shady venues. Gambling and betting on the fighters came to be a rage with huge stakes involved. People from all walks of life would flock to the venues and this spectator sport was usually held at underground locations like the Lillie Bridge in London which was often subject to raids and arrests by the local police. Shortly after this era, in the 20th century, boxing, through its highs and lows came to be recognized as a prominent part of society and featured many influential promoters and legendary champions. This was followed with the establishment of boxing commissions, legal sanctioning and governing bodies.
Soon enough, boxing grew to international heights and 'professional boxing' emerged in many countries. But popularity always has a price to pay. Boxing has also been controversy's child through time. The modern professional boxing scene saw many legends showcasing their talent since 1920s. Some of these boxers included Henry Armstrong, Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, James. J. Braddock, Jack Dempsey, Jess Willard and Georges Carpentier amongst many others.
During World War II, a boxing ring became a major battlefield for champions hailing from different countries. One famous incident was the 1938 match between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis that resulted in Schmeling's defeat after which he was compelled by Adolf Hitler to enroll in the German armed forces.
In the 1950s, the world had started finding its feet economically after World War II. Television had made its way in a majority of homes and international network providers featured live sport broadcasts. Boxing Championships were now, not only limited to the United States and England but was also hosted by many other countries like South Africa, Japan, Australia and Argentina. Boxing event organizers, promoters and managers generated a heavy amount of finance through their work. The resurrection of boxing finally came about. However, a lot of prominent promoters were either involved with the Mafia, or were the Mafia themselves, and boxing transitioned into an intense and notorious backdrop. In the following years, a lot of boxers stemmed from controversial pasts.
One such controversial boxing legend during the 1960s was Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), who embraced Islam and was charged with evasion of not serving the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Ali was stripped of boxing title and license, after which he did not make a ring appearance for four years. Yet, he steadfastly voiced his opinion about being against the whole idea of the Vietnam War and went on to inspire the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. He, however, returned to the boxing ring in the 1970s.
Establishments like World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), International Boxing Federation (IBF) and the World Boxing Organization (WBO) began pitching competitions against each other. Matches for boxing titles in accordance to divisions such as lightweight, heavyweight, etc. commenced in the 70s which could be viewed live on color television sets.
Boxing in the 1980s and 1990s featured some of the most magnificent matches, primarily financed by the corporates. Boxers such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Durán and Marvin Hagler continued to intrigue the spectators. The 90s paved way for many talented newcomers like Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya hailing from countries such as Britain and Canada, who carved a niche for themselves.
With the dawn of the 20th century, Germany emerged as an epicenter for boxing with a number of talented boxers to its credit. A professional British boxer, Amir Khan, shot to fame quickly with the WBO Intercontinental, Commonwealth and WBA International titles to his name. Vijender Singh, a small town boy from India was also recognized by the International Boxing Association which announced him as the top ranked boxer in the annual middleweight category in 2009. Despite all this, in the 21st century, the glory that boxing once achieved and enjoyed, seems to have diminished considerably with other more glamorous and supposedly elitist sports such as cricket and football coming to the forefront.
As a sport, boxing has given the world great men and excellent sportsmen. These stalwarts in my opinion are men who have fought for guts and glory and forever left an indelible mark in the minds of fans.
Sugar Ray Robinson (1940-1965): One of the few sportsmen who have a commemorative stamp in their name, he is regarded as one of the greatest boxers to ever have set foot inside the ring.
Rocky Marciano (1948-1955): One of the hardest punchers of all times, Marciano remained undefeated in all the 49 matches which he played. Regardless of this, he never managed to score high ranks but still his winning record brought to his name, a lot of glory.
Willie Pep (1940-1966): This Italian-American boxer has a record of 229 victories out of the 241 matches that he played. He also has a record of winning 73 matches in a row. This definitely makes him one of the greatest boxers of all times.
Muhammad Ali (1960-1981): Possibly a living example of why boxing is called a lethal sport, Muhammad Ali has been revered all over the world as one of the greatest boxers ever. He described his unconventional and distinctive style of fighting as 'float like a butterfly, sting like a bee'.
Mike Tyson (1985-2005): As a boxer, there was no question that Tyson makes an important part of this list. But at the same time, he is also a classic case of how too much of publicity and adulation can be extremely bad for a person.
What started off as a competitive sport mainly played for betting, boxing has come a long way from what it used to be. Despite being an underrated sport today, boxing still finds a huge fan following amongst fierce and passionate boxing lovers. An immortal legacy has been shaped by various champion boxers, who came, reigned and left. Several legendary fights of all time are still reminisced upon by ardent fans and spectators. The whole vibe and accord of times that saw these champions in action is ineffable and still vests in the hearts of many.
The new generation of boxers are also an energetic and spectacular breed. Fighters from Cuba, Russia, India and USA have shown some serious talent in the recent times, and the world has witnessed several women's boxing tournaments as well. But, will there be another iconic era for boxing? Only time will tell!